A Male Coach Gives A Fist Bump To A Male Runner As A Female Runner Looks On At A Track.

How to Build an Athlete Community Virtually and Locally

BY Maria Simone

Creating a team for community is not for every coaching brand. However, if you want a team but thought you couldn’t have one because you aren’t geographically proximal to your athletes, rethink what is possible!

When I started my coaching company, I worked full-time as a university professor. I wanted a team, but it was impossible to sustain regular in-person workouts with my schedule. Then, I started coaching athletes with busy or irregular schedules. They, too, wanted a team experience but couldn’t do in-person group training.

We weren’t alone. I realized there were quite a few athletes in this situation. So, what if we created a virtual team?

In the early years, I was the only coach, working with 15 athletes. Now, 12 years later, we are a team of eight coaches and 120 athletes, representing 29 states and three countries. I’ll share what we’ve done to create a team identity and a sense of belonging for our squad — even though most of us may never meet in person!

What is Your Team About?

Most importantly: start with a clear mission and vision for your company, coaching and team. In our case, our company mission and vision are seamless with our team mission and vision, but you may have a different mission for the team than your coaching company.

As you consider your mission and vision, determine who your team will serve best. Do you want to support a specific type of athlete, for example, high-performance/elite athletes or beginners? A particular distance of short/long course racing? Or do you want to provide a space for underrepresented communities, such as athletes of color and/or women? As your team and/or coaching staff grow, you may find you can serve a variety of athletes, but it’s helpful to start with a focus on supporting marketing and recruiting efforts.

Who are you?

Craft an identity for your team, including a name, logo, team gear and marketing. The name and logo may extend your coaching brand or be a separate entity. This choice will flow from the mission and vision.

Having branded gear — both for racing and casual wear — is key to identity development and creating a sense of belonging.

We partner with a third-party manufacturer for race gear, and our athletes purchase kits directly from an online store. This process cuts administrative work on our end. A variety of companies provide this service — contact me if you’d like information about race kit companies we’ve worked with in the past. What I look for from a kit company includes:

  • Prompt and helpful customer service
  • Team store with direct-to-athlete shipping
  • Low or no order minimums
  • Quality materials — always ask for samples before partnering with a company!

For casual gear, I place bulk orders with local companies — again, contact me if you want to know my favorites — and our athletes can order at any time from our SWAG store, hosted on RunSignUp. We started with a small gear inventory, offering our athletes a free hat or visor. Today, we offer a variety of options, such as shirts, hats, swim caps and water bottles.

Each new athlete receives a welcome package, which includes a free item of $25 value, along with stickers, a water bottle and a swim cap for triathletes. Athletes who stay with us year over a year receive a branded holiday gift item. Athletes can purchase additional items from our SWAG store and many do.

Branded gear helps athletes find each other when they are at the same event. They tend to find each other at packet pick-up, along the racecourse and as friendly faces on the sidelines. Most recently, two team members, one from Texas and one from New Jersey, bumped into each other hiking in the Grand Canyon! If not for the No Limits hat, they would not have had an opportunity to forge a connection.

Additionally, you can foster identity through team-specific hashtags, social media shoutouts and recognition and team communication, which we’ll get to shortly.

Connect with Organizations

You can affiliate your club with certifying bodies like USA Triathlon, Ironman or the Road Runners Club of America. These affiliations often include team perks, such as discounts with partners or reduced early-access race entries.

As you grow your team numbers, work with companies to sponsor your team. Identify businesses that share your mission and vision. Create partnerships that include rewards for your team members in trade for the team promoting and supporting the partner company at events, patronage and social media.

Community development

With the framework in place, you can get to work on developing the team into a community. The most crucial piece of this is creating a variety of communication platforms through which team members can interact with each other. As you grow, you may need a team manager — as team administration can be time-consuming.

Group Forum

We have a private team group monitored by the coaches that allow athletes to interact with the coaching staff and, more importantly, to get to know each other. The latter is CRITICAL to the health of your community. When you first start your forum, you will need to prompt engagement. Over time, members will become more active–but make sure the culture stays open and respectful.

We have a strict “no trolls” policy, with a mantra: “No egos. Just sweat and smiles.” We do not censor topics but enforce our rules, including a private warning if anyone steps out. In the 10 years that we’ve had this forum, I’ve only had to kick out two members. Healthy community culture takes care of the rest and we model the respectful behavior we seek.

Our regular features in the forum include:

  • Monday Morning Musings
  • A welcome introduction for each new member
  • Team Huddle — a weekly pep talk post with shout-outs for those racing
  • Medal Monday shout-outs — to publicly recognize our athletes’ success
  • Birthday shout outs

As appropriate, we post training tips, information, links to articles, funny memes, etc. We work to make this forum community-oriented and valuable for learning and growth. Our platform has a daily average of three posts and 20-22 comments. Most of this engagement is not coming from the coaches but directly from the athletes. We support engagement but work to ensure we don’t overtake it.

There are a variety of platforms to consider for your forum, including Facebook Groups, Slack, WhatsApp and Groups.io. Depending on its configuration, you may also consider building a forum as an extension of your website.

Shared events

When possible, create shared events for your team. The events you choose will be specific to your athletes and the nature of your team. To help get your creativity flowing, I’ll share some of the things we’ve done.

We offer enough virtual and in-person options that our athletes can take advantage of at least one of these events.

VIRTUAL EVENTS

  • Challenges — the most recent was our annual Resolution Challenge, a fundraiser for Girls on the Run. We ran regular challenges during the Covid lockdown, but now that racing is back, we reserve them more for the offseason months, as we don’t want challenges to interrupt race-specific training.
  • Team Meetings — we host monthly team meetings that are recorded and available for playback at any time and Zoom happy hours, usually during the holiday period.
  • Zoom Workouts — we offer live and recorded Zoom workouts for yoga, TRX and limited equipment strength. We provide an open Zoom room that athletes can use all day Saturday and Sunday.

IN-PERSON EVENTS

Admittedly, in-person events are the hardest to coordinate with a team like ours. However, we have a few options that have allowed us to connect in physical reality.

  • Team races with pre-race breakfast — we have a few races that tend to attract many of our athletes, so we host a pre-race team breakfast the day before. Additionally, we keep a team calendar, which allows athletes to see if other team members are also racing at an upcoming event. When we have a bunch of athletes racing the same event, we’ll give them a head’s up and help them coordinate meetups.
  • Coach attendance — for races where we have quite a few athletes, we do our best to get a coach there to head up the cheerleading. We have a team tent, and any spectators and team members’ families are invited to park under the tent with us for the day.
  • Year-end parties — we hold an in-person party to close out the year. This is typically held in the Northeast, where the bulk of our team members live. As we have a growing presence in the west, we are looking at opportunities to expand our gatherings.
  • Training Camps — we have two primary training camps reflecting the interests of most of our athletes: a triathlon training camp in Lake Placid, NY in June, and an ultrarunning training camp in Leadville, CO in Aug. We are planning to expand with a running camp in Arizona in 2023.

Education

Our team members are students of the sport as much as athletes. So, we offer a variety of resources, with premium content for members only. As mentioned previously, we hold monthly team meetings, each focusing on a different topic, led by one of our coaches or other experts in our network.

We send a weekly team newsletter with a featured article with actionable training advice. A weekly team tip is shared as a note in TrainingPeaks with our team using the dynamic plan function.

Through our RunSignUp Team page, we provide access to newsletter and meeting archives and other training resources, allowing us to keep this information private for team members only.

Creating a team is not for every coaching brand. However, if you want a team but thought you couldn’t have one because you aren’t geographically proximal to your athletes, rethink what is possible! A team environment can help athletes thrive — especially during stressful times. In our yearly athlete surveys, we ask them to list the top three things they value the most about being a No Limits athlete. The responses in ranked order are community, inclusiveness and feedback and support from coaches and the team.

In addition to supporting your athletes, building a team can support your business. Our average retention rate for an athlete is two- and one-half years. Over a third of our athletes have been with us for three years or more. We have a dozen athletes who have been with us for six or more years. A quality coaching service plus a strong team community can help you and your athletes thrive!

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About Maria Simone

Maria Simone is the owner and head coach of No Limits Endurance Coaching. She manages a staff of eight coaches and a team of 140 athletes. She is a USA Triathlon Level 2 long course, USA Cycling Level 2, and US Masters Swimming Level 1 certified coach. She was the 2021 Coach of the Year, awarded by Outspoken Women in Triathlon.

She offers mentoring for newer and intermediate coaches to support growth in coaching and business development. She takes a holistic approach to training that cultivates her athlete’s goals, physical ability and mental strength while managing a life-work-training balance. She is an active endurance athlete, enjoying long weekends in the pain cave, races with lots of hills, and hard runs through meandering singletrack trails with her husband John and her two dogs, Pace and Kea.

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